"Democracy, sponsored by Koch Industries": 2016's scary new landscape

Money will no longer be a concern for candidates, and we're only beginning to understand the implications

Published April 22, 2015 6:17PM (EDT)

David Koch, Sheldon Adelson         (AP/Evan Agostini/Scott Roth/photo montage by Salon)
David Koch, Sheldon Adelson (AP/Evan Agostini/Scott Roth/photo montage by Salon)

The contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will be unlike anything we've ever seen in American politics. Not just because every Republican politician in the country is running, or because the Republican party is further to the right than it's ever been. Those two facets of this cycle are really symptoms of the larger change at hand: this may be the first contest in which none of the first- or second-tier candidates have to worry about money.

At this early stage, it's hard to comprehend all of the ways that this will play out. But this primary has the potential to scrap the conventional wisdom about how to win presidential nominations. It may make for a superficially more democratic process, but that process will be sponsored in whole by a handful of wealthy people with their own interests. Call it privatized democracy.

The old, pre-Citizens United model for winning the Republican presidential nomination was straightforward: stay competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then use the momentum and resources from there to take South Carolina. If an outsider candidate -- a Pat Buchanan, a John McCain -- has early success in Iowa or New Hampshire, the party establishment, which controls the money, marshals its resources behind the establishment pick in South Carolina. Win South Carolina, and you've won the nomination. By that point, your competitors will have exhausted their resources and won't have the means to continue through Super Tuesday.

Newt Gingrich, who for a universally recognized silly person has a strange ability to completely upend long-standing political paradigms, struck the first blow against this model in 2012 by winning the South Carolina primary. It was the first time in modern history that the eventual Republican nominee did not win South Carolina.

Under the old model, Newt Gingrich wouldn't have made it to South Carolina. He would have dropped out -- probably after his fourth place finish in Iowa, and certainly after his fifth place finish in New Hampshire. He would have had no money left and no means of quickly replenishing his campaign account. But thanks to Citizens United, all Gingrich had to do was convince one man, in his case the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, to commit another $10 million or so to his super PAC. Rick Santorum, similarly, would have exhausted his resources after South Carolina, even with all the attention he garnered after a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses. But near-billionaire Foster Friess took a shine to Santorum and kept cutting checks to Santorum's super PAC. Both Gingrich and Santorum kept their campaigns plugging along much further into the primary calendar than the old rules would have ever allowed them to.

The conventional wisdom during the 2012 primaries had it that Mitt Romney was a "weak frontrunner" given his inability to quickly dispatch insignificant competitors like Santorum and Gingrich. Few would argue that Romney's political skills merit enshrinement in the Republican Hall of Fame, but his "weakness" in wrapping up the nomination was more the work of a new, outside force -- the post-Citizens United super PAC era -- than his inability to emote authentically. Pre-Citizens United, Romney would have coasted to the nomination after winning the New Hampshire primary.

The 2012 primary showed the potential of a new model, and 2016 is when that model takes full footing.

The most important numbers to look at right now are not early polls of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, where there's a whole lot of sorting left to do. It doesn't matter whether Jeb Bush is at 18 percent or 12 percent or Marco Rubio is at 4 percent or 12 percent -- though it does matter that no one is above or anywhere near, say, 40 percent.

No, the most important numbers that we've seen in this early stage of the campaign are 31 and 40. Those are the approximate numbers, in millions of dollars, that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio respectively earned in super PAC commitments in the first few days of their campaigns. They're not going to be able to keep up that clip -- the idea is show off a truckload of shock-and-awe money upfront. But already, within a matter of days, these candidates have blown out of the water the sums that Gingrich and Santorum raised in outside cash.

If these are the new fundraising expectations, then neither Cruz, Rubio, nor the other loosely top-tier contenders -- Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul -- will have to worry about money for the rest of the primary season. If the loosely second-tier candidates, like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and so on, can wrangle themselves a couple of plutocrats, then they won't have to worry about money either.

Sure, this is just outside money -- not official campaign donations, which are subject to individual donor caps. But there are already indications that super PACs will take on more traditional campaign duties this time around, instead of just providing "air support" in the form of television advertisements. As the AP reported this week, Jeb Bush is planning to "outsource" most of the normal campaign work to his super PAC, which will likely have somewhere well north of $100 million to work with throughout the primaries. That means that Bush's Right to Rise super PAC -- which, since he's not officially a candidate yet, he's allowed to work with in soliciting unlimited donations from donors --  would handle everything: television advertising, direct mail, "data gathering, highly individualized online advertising and running phone banks. Also on the table, tasking the super PAC with crucial campaign endgame strategies: the operation to get out the vote and efforts to maximize absentee and early voting on Bush's behalf." If the other candidates run a similar model -- and if they have competent people working for them, they will -- they won't need much in official campaign donations. Just enough to cover plane tickets and fill the gas tank, essentially.

We're looking at a Republican presidential primary cycle where 5-10 candidates, some with more flexible expense accounts than others, could have the resources to run their campaigns through the nominating contests in all 50 states plus territories.

In terms of strategy, this augurs a total overhaul of the presidential primary textbook. We wouldn't go so far as to say Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina completely lose their strategic importance. It still would be damaging for a candidate to fall off the public radar at the outset, and all of the top-shelf consultants that campaigns are scooping up are top-shelf consultants in the first place because they know how to work Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Old habits won't have to die, but there's opportunity for them to change. If you're Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee or Rand Paul or Chris Christie, and you've got the resources of stand over a 50-state plus territories delegate map, why not stake an early claim in the later states? Plant a relatively cheap flag in New Mexico or Kansas or Idaho or Alabama and make those states your firewall. If you know from the outset that you'll have the means to get that far, then you have the luxury of designing and executing a long-game strategy from the start.

We've dispensed enough free advice to Republican presidential candidates for now. So let's turn to the do-gooder, wishy-washy moral concerns here. Is this dynamic of Citizens United in full bloom... good?

The old system, where there was less money and the party establishment controlled most of it, had its obvious democratic drawbacks. It wasn't fair to voters in the 47 other states that, by the time their dates came up on the calendar, the establishment had already effectively chosen the candidate for them. Now that unlimited outside contributions will allow so many candidates the opportunity to play the full map, are we looking at a fairer system for voters?

That's certainly the way that billionaire funders would like to spin it. Consider Charles Koch, who was cornered into giving a rare interview to USA Today after the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers, and the vast "network" of rich donors they operate, had thrown their support behind Scott Walker. Maybe Walker really is their man, but it certainly doesn't help them if that goes public. If word got out that they were behind Walker, then all the other candidates would stop bothering to suck up to them.

Charles Koch told USA Today that there are five candidates the brothers are looking at, the ones with the "right message" and a "good chance of getting elected": Walker, Bush, Paul, Rubio and Cruz. The entire loosely-first tier roster, in other words. Koch suggested that the brothers may not just get behind one candidate, either, after "auditions" are complete. They're considering seeding multiple candidates, just to ensure that they all have the means to continue duking it out throughout the full primary calendar. Charles thinks that his network would be doing America a favor here.

"Only if somebody really stands out from the standpoint of their message and what they would actually do to benefit America and has a chance a decent chance of being elected, only then would we select one over the others," Koch said.

Even then, Koch said there was no guarantee his network would back one candidate ahead of the 2016 general election.

"We may give several of them some money to get this positive message out," he said.

Koch sees the idea of giving five presidential candidates enough money to carry them through the long winter as an act of extraordinary altruism in the service of democracy. You guys just focus on getting the "positive message" out to as many people as possible and send us the bill.

Well, here's another, somewhat more anti-democratic way of looking at Koch's plan: Charles Koch, David Koch, and a few of their Fortune 500 friends would be purchasing the five most viable Republican presidential candidates for themselves. Primary voters wouldn't be getting democracy so much as they'd be getting Democracy: Sponsored by Koch Industries. Republicans across the country would get their chance to pick from among a handful of candidates, but those candidates will have all converged around a platform drafted by a Randian ideologue. What's better: The Party Decides While Letting A Few States Pretend To Decide, or Charles Koch Decides While Letting Every State Pretend To Decide? This is not an easy question.

We're only beginning to understand it, and it's going to present itself in all sorts of unknowable ways over the next 15 months, but the recent history of Republican presidential primaries may no longer be relevant. I've thought for a while, as have many other political observers, that Jeb Bush is the clear favorite to win the nomination. I'm not so sure about that anymore, because it hinges on the old model: the Republican with the most establishment backing, and a relatively moderate policy platform, whose "turn" it is, always wins in the end. The other candidates never have the resources to to play the long game.

Now they do.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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